Who are the homeless youth in Metro Vancouver, and how did they come to end up on our streets, in our shelters, or living transiently in crowded or unsafe conditions? Perhaps they are among the 4,000 children and youth reported as having run away in 2011. Perhaps they are among the 60 percent of homeless youth who come from outside of Metro Vancouver. Their stories are as distinct as they are. However, there are some common themes in the stories youth tell about the path that took them from home to homelessness.
Defining Youth Homelessness
The Metro Vancouver 2014 Homeless Count counted 410 homeless youth and children under the age of 25 in the region. The Vancouver Foundation estimates as many as 700 youth are homeless in Vancouver, not including the hidden homeless: youth who couch surf, live in unsafe conditions, or bounce from home to home.
As these numbers vary, so too do definitions of youth homelessness. Some agencies or researchers define youth as anyone from age 12 to 19. Others might use age 25 or 30 as the cut-off point. There is also variety in the definition of “homeless.” It can include those with no permanent home and living in a shelter or temporary housing, those sleeping on a friend’s couch, as well as those literally living on the streets.
Several studies have noted similar patterns in the paths leading youth to homelessness. Instability in home life and disconnect from community is a common theme among homeless youth. In Between the Cracks: Homeless Youth in Vancouver, a report by The McCreary Centre Society, youths spoke of chaos and conflict at home, not fitting in at school, constant movement between households and between communities, and an absence of connections with supportive adults in their lives before the street. Youth report a great deal of movement from one living situation to another, both with and without family, and inside and outside the government care system.
Nearly half of street-involved youth are foster care ‘graduates’ who have been homeless since leaving or aging out of ministry guardianship or care. In BC this generally refers to having to leave the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s care programs, such as foster homes, group homes, or in independent living programs. In Time for Action: Report of the Homeless Voices Youth Action Squad produced by The Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy (GVSS), aging-out is the most common theme among homeless youth. Leaving care forces a rapid transition from youth into adulthood and many youth feel that they do not have access to the necessary supports to assist them through this period.
Unpredictability at Home
Instability in home life can also come from a high level of unpredictability, as may arise from an abusive parent, or one struggling with addiction. The youth who contributed to the GVSS report told many stories about “growing up in a family that was not able to provide the necessary supports that youth need, such as a caring environment, parental guidance, supervision, and positive role models.” Addiction was a factor in unsupportive family life — when both parents struggle with addictions, they may have little energy left to care for and support their children. Some youth left these situations of their own will, while others were kicked out.
Many youth in the GVSS report spoke of their own addictions as being a factor leading into homelessness, either for themselves or for other youth they know. Covenant House reports that 50% of their youth presented with an addiction problem.
According to the Mcreary Centre’s document, substance use often contributes to a youth’s initial attraction to the street and also keeps young people involved in street life. Almost all the youth in the Mcreary study spoke of their relationship with drugs, and several acknowledged the strong influence of drugs in their lives.
Mental illness is another factor contributing to youth homelessness. Covenant House Vancouver reports that 39% of their youth present with a mental health diagnosis. Behavioural issues related to undiagnosed or untreated mental illness may lead youth to become estranged from their families of origin. A report by The St. Paul’s Hospital Inner City Youth Mental Health Program states that mental illness in street-involved youth is eight to 10 times more common than in a non-homeless youth population. These youth present with various psychiatric problems, including anxiety, depression, trauma, attachment issues, poor coping patterns and personality disorders, psychosis, acquired brain injuries and substance use.
Clearly, youth homelessness is a multi-faceted issue, and one that requires a multi-pronged approach. Funding, accessible youth services, education, housing, and government policy can all contribute to easing the burden of at-risk youth, and in connecting homeless youth to services that will guide them to independent self-determined adulthood.
If you are a youth trying to find help, or if you are a service provider trying to connect youth to community resources, dial 2-1-1 to speak to one of our Information and Referral Specialists, or visit the Red Book Online .
In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring other issues related to youth homelessness, connectedness, substance use, and mental health.
Originally published on Feb 11, 2015